I find it hard to believe that just two weeks ago I was in Washington, DC representing the South Carolina Association of School Librarians [SCASL] as Legislative Chair on behalf of the school librarians of our state during ALA’s National Library Legislative Days. Of course, at this point, I also can’t believe I was dumb enough to schedule a BOGO book fair and the final date for books to be returned in the same week. Ah, some things we regret and some we celebrate. I am definitely celebrating National Library Legislative Days. If you are a librarian anywhere in the United States, I encourage you to do your very best at some point in your career to experience this annual event. It is incredible to be in the heart of our nation, talking about things that matter most. Things like libraries as community centers ; funding to help level the playing field between those who have what they need in our society and those who don’t even have basic needs; helping people apply for jobs or medical care in a world that has increasingly moved toward digital formats, forgetting that some of our citizens do not have permanent housing, let alone an internet connection to apply for assistance. Things that matter because they keep our communities strong, healthy, employable, and educated.
Day One – Newbie Training!
On Monday, May 6, I met SCASL’s president-elect Anne Lemieux at the Ronald Reagan airport and we traveled to our hotel. After checking in, we walked around DC for a bit, getting our bearings and discussing our trip. Neither of us had ever participated in Library Legislative Days and we were unsure of what to expect or what we were getting ourselves into. Of course, ALA is very good at planning such monumental endeavors and we were able to attend a session for newbies. The session was wonderfully informative and even included a bit of humor, which helped calm our nerves. We learned that most likely, we would not meet the actual elected officials, but would instead meet with their staffers. We were also told, a bit tongue-in-cheek, that these staffers might remind us of our own sweet school children but were not to be referred to as such. These staffers might be young, but we were assured they knew their business and they knew the expectations of the congress members they served. We reviewed several legislative issues that might not seem to effect libraries on the surface , but can either help us build crucial services or cause us to lose important components of our programs. Some of those issues can be found at the bottom of the page here. We were also presented with a briefing schedule for the next day. By the time I left, my head was spinning and the nerves had returned as it dawned on me that I might have to try to sound semi-intelligent about a ton of legislation I truly knew next to nothing about. After all, as a school librarian, I am used to taking whatever budget I am given by my building principal without really being aware of the origins of the funding. I felt unprepared for what was to come and frustrated with myself for not being better prepared. Civic lesson 101: Know your legislators, how they vote, and stay informed through your professional organizations, social media, and by simply paying attention to the world around you.
Comfort from Home
Later, Anne and I met public and academic librarians from our great state who had traveled by train, plane, or automobile for Legislative Library Days at a cool little indie book store with a restaurant called Afterwords to discuss meeting with our Capitol Hill representatives. We shared stories from the trenches, got to know each other, and talked about what really mattered to us as librarians. Our common thread, despite budget cuts, reduction in staff, loss of services, and other hardships, was a love for our communities in whatever form they take and a desire to serve our patrons to the best of our abilities. To do that, however, does require support from the communities we serve, a bit of funding, and at least a nod or two from our South Carolina legislators at home and on the Hill. Fortunately, I also found out that my traveling companions were much more well-versed in legislation and the impact much of it makes on our libraries. Whew! What a relief. Believe me, I began paying very close attention as they discussed funding and more.
Day Two – Briefing Day
Briefing day was in our hotel, which was a blessing since it was raining cats and dogs, but not money, in DC that day. I joined about 350 people from around the country, including 13 from our own state, in the conference room. It was incredible to see so many people on the same mission in one room. As I sat in the session, I began to get a better grasp on our reason for being in Washington and how the legislation effected my school and my library program. Pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place and acronyms like FASTR, WIA, LEARN, and IAL began to form meaning in my mind. I also discovered that ALA handily put some key points on the back of our name tags. How smart is that? I think the ultimate in cool for me was listening to Lee Rain, from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, speak about their recent library survey. I think the touch of familiar he provided, discussing something that I actually knew about, comforted me.
Planning Our Strategy
That evening, our South Carolina contingent met again to put together information packets for our legislators and divide tightly scheduled meetings in eight different offices between us. Our packets included information on key pieces of legislation, to help congress members and their staff remember key points after we left their offices; memories from home in the form of beautiful South Carolina pottery and salt water taffy; and a gift from my home school district in the form of a craft containing a packet of seeds to remind our legislators libraries plant seeds of knowledge, QR codes directing them to key school library information sites, and notes from our students about why they love their school libraries. Anne and I were to be split up most of the day to ensure there was a school librarian in each group, and we as a whole discussed how many pieces of legislation were on the table and on which of those we would focus. When you have a small window of time, you learn to plan very carefully. Anne and I were charged with discussing Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL), which will provide competitive grants to needy school districts to update their programming and collections. We also needed to know about the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) which helps our State Library pay for the DISCUS program, saving individual libraries of every type about $54 million a year in spending on databases. In other words, giving us databases for our citizens to use that we would not otherwise be able to afford at all. Finally, we planned to encourage our state legislators to include wording that would require a certified librarian, updated materials, training, and opportunities for collaboration in the Literacy Education for All Act (LEARN). Homework in hand, I retired to my room to study and prepare for our big day.
On Capitol Hill
So, are you humming the tune to the School House Rock song “I’m Just a Bill”? Given that ALA informed us that only about 4% of the 10,000 pieces of legislation introduced to Congress each year ever becomes anything else, you just can’t help it!) Since I was in the first group of the morning, I headed out at 8:15 AM. My group then walked to Rayburn House for our 9 AM meeting with Congressman Joe Wilson’s staff. This was my “test run” where I would find out if I could remember what I needed to discuss and not humiliate myself or SCASL. When we arrived at Congressman Wilson’s office, we were warmly greeted and entered into a slightly cramped conference area. No, it seems our legislators are not spending our tax dollars on office space, folks! Once seated, we began to discuss our concerns about the future of libraries, our ideas about legislation currently on the table, and to thank Congressman Wilson through his staff for past support. His legislative aide was intelligent, articulate, and asked pointed questions about our programs. This was also my first opportunity to see how truly connected public, academic, and school libraries really are. As Leesa Benggio, Deputy Director of the South Carolina State Library, began to talk about how LSTA paid for everyone in South Carolina to have access to DISCUS and how E-rate paid for internet infrastructure, I saw the interdependence of our services to our patrons and better understood how cutting the budget in one area had a direct impact on another, and how those cuts effect the people of our state. Among my group were representatives of rural and urban libraries, small and large libraries, and university libraries. As each person spoke in turn, I gained a broader perspective. When it was my turn to speak, I was able to express the interconnectedness I saw and reiterate the importance of what we do to serve our citizens, including our school children. The legislative aide took copious notes and asked clarifying questions. She pledged to get that information to the Congressman and arranged for a chaperon to take us the other side of the Capitol, where we were scheduled to meet with Senator Lindsey Graham.
Did you know there is this huge underground system of hallways that lets all those legislators, their staff, and others travel quickly between the House of Representatives side of the Capitol and the Senate side? I didn’t, but it was amazing. There is a treasure trove of US history under the top-side streets of Washington, DC that I had no idea existed. There is also a really cool tram and we got to ride it — twice! As our chaperone took us through passageway after passageway, I was awed by much of what I saw, including all the people. No wonder there weren’t that many people moving around above ground! I have to say that this method of travel was efficient and we were able to quickly get to where we needed to be. I’ll also take a moment here to thank Senator Tim Scott, who later in the day had his office manager escort us back to the other side, stay with us while we had lunch, and make sure we stayed on schedule. What wonderful care we received from people who are often maligned in the press and by the very people who voted them into office. Sometimes we forget that we have entrusted them to look out for us and that such a task can be overwhelming even in the best of times. Dealing with things like fiscal cliffs, sequestering, and rising deficit does not make their job any easier.
The rest of our day was spent moving from office to office. My group met with Senator Lindsey Graham’s legislative aide, who not only listened but gave us the Senator’s perspective on the budget issues and his appreciation of the services libraries at all levels offer. We actually were able to meet Senator Tim Scott because our arrival coincided with an already arranged meet and greet time for his constituents. Even during that brief time, he had to excuse himself a few times to dash off to a meeting or discuss a pressing matter; yet, he was gracious and even took time for a photo with our delegation. We also visited with staff members from Congressman Trey Gowdy’s office and Congressman Jim Clyburn’s office. Congressman Clyburn is a bit near and dear to my heart because his wife was once a school librarian, which gives me a sense of kinship. The other half of our group made sure to visit Congressmen Tom Rice, Mick Mulvaney, and Jeff Duncan‘s offices presenting the same message we shared. Throughout our day, we were met with positive attitudes, graciousness, a few chagrined smiles from staffers who well remembered using DISCUS for high school research but had forgotten about it after getting their diplomas and moving on, and a promise to keep libraries and the communities they serve in mind as budgets are slashed and hard decisions are made. As one of our contingent pointed out, spending just $1 on library services yields over $6 in return for our communities. Libraries are great fiscal investments. Sometimes, we just need to remind those making the big decisions who we are and what we do, which is the purpose of ALA’s Library Legislative Days.
So, now that I have learned all of this, discovered all the things I don’t know about my government and the legislative process, and found out that I can make a difference if I take the time to do so, what happens? I plan to attempt to be better informed by taking more time to read ALA’s Legislative Dispatch, using their Washington Office Resources, and making sure I contact my representatives in Congress e-mails, tweets, faxes, and whatever other kind of communication I can manage to let them know when legislation that matters to libraries is on the floor and up for discussion. After finishing this post, I’ll write thank yous to the staff members who took time from an extremely busy schedule to sit down and listen to what we had to say. I’ll also send thank yous to the Senators and Congressmen those staff members represented and encourage them to vocally support libraries of all types and the services they provide. You can do this too. Find out who your legislators are and keep in touch with them. Most of them have Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, and use other social media. We elected these officials and they need to hear our concerns to know how to best serve us. Silence may be golden; but with 10,000 pieces of legislation on the table each year, it can also be deadly to the programs that matter most in our states. Speak up and let your voices be heard.
- Hundreds Gather in D.C. for 39th Annual National Library Legislative Day (districtdispatch.org)
- Hurrah for libraries! Please save library funding! #Reading #Books #Libraries (thejoywriter.typepad.com)
- 11 Key Takeaways from Pew Internet’s Research on the Changing Role of Public Libraries and Library Users in the Digital Age (lawprofessors.typepad.com)
- The best things that you never knew you could get from the library (financesonline.com)